peak dystopia

We’ve Reached Peak Dystopia, But Is It Possible to Imagine Utopia Anymore?

Skogafoss waterfall situated in the south of Iceland at the cliffs of the former coastline. After the coastline had receded seaward the former sea cliffs remained, parallel to the coast over hundreds of kilometers, creating together with some mountains a clear border between the coastal lowlands and the Highlands of Iceland. The Skogafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls of the country with a width of 25 meters and a drop of 60 meters. At least 20 more waterfalls cascade down the mountain slopes above the Skogafoss
Photo: Seth Resnick/Corbis

You can learn a lot about a society by the Utopia it envisions, and right now our Utopia is a reality show on Fox. Specifically, Utopia, a show in which, among others, a patriot, a pastor, an ex-con, a hillbilly, a raw vegan, a glass blower, and a guy from Salt Lake City are thrust together in the wild to build a perfect society from scratch. The show debuts September 9, with the “experiment” (i.e. the 24/7 webcams) going live online on August 29. But from the available trailers and teasers, the show might better be called “Survivor for Polyamorous Libertarians,” or perhaps “Big Brother, If You Had to Also Actually Build the Big Brother House Yourselves.”

It should be interesting to see what vision of Utopia this haphazard crew comes up with, especially given that they may well be the only people in the world anymore sincerely imagining what Utopia might look like. Dystopia — now that’s a whole other matter. Everyone’s got dystopia on the brain these days. It seems redundant to even assemble a short list of recent examples: YA blockbusters like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner; reboots of dystopian classics like Robocop and Mad Max; and new dystopic novels, from Dave Eggers’s The Circle to Edan Lepucki’s California to Margaret Atwood’s trilogy-capping MaddAddam. (I, too, splashed in these murky dystopic waters, with my near-future NYC novel Shovel Ready, which came out on the very same day as another dystopian novel, Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee.) Given the dominance of dystopias, it’s possible to forget that Utopia (coined back in 1516 as the title of the book by Sir Thomas More) came first, and dystopia (coined mid-20th century) was essentially its johnny-come-lately spinoff, the Laverne & Shirley to Utopia’s Happy Days.

“Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now” — so begins a recent essay in the New York Review of Books on Such a Full Sea. As has often been noted, dystopias are so attractive precisely because they provide a cultural canvas on which we can portray, and often artfully lampoon, those aspects of current society that seem most troubling and ominous. Given recent events, from Ferguson to Gaza to ISIS, the biggest problem with imagining dystopia seems to be coming up with some future world that’s worse than what’s happening right now.

Recently, though, we may have finally hit Peak Dystopia. Lois Lowry, the author of The Giver — the 1993 novel, just turned into a film, that’s often credited with sparking the YA dystopian revolution — just proclaimed that “dystopian fiction is passé now.” Late last year, a prominent book agent told Publishers Weekly that, thanks to a market glut, it’s now almost impossible to sell any young-adult novel that has “even the whiff of dystopia about it.” All of which suggests there might be an opening for a return to Utopian novels — if such a thing as “Utopian novels” actually existed anymore.

In college, as part of a history class, I read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, a Utopian science-fiction novel published in 1888. The book — an enormous success in its time, nearly as big as Uncle Tom’s Cabin — is interesting now less as literature than as a historical document, and it’s certainly telling that, in the midst of the industrial revolution, a novel promising a future socialist landscape of increased equality and reduced labor so gripped the popular imagination. We might compare Bellamy’s book to current visions of Utopia if I could recall even a single Utopian novel or film from the past five years. Or ten years. Or 20. Wikipedia lists dozens of contemporary dystopian films and novels, yet the most recent entry in its rather sparse “List of Utopian Novels” is Island by Aldous Huxley, published in 1962. The closest thing to a recent Utopian film I can think of is Spike Jonze’s Her, though that vision of the future — one in which human attachment to sentient computers might become something close to meaningful — hardly seems like a fate we should collectively strive for, but rather one we might all be resigned to placidly accept.

Many serious contemporary authors have tackled dystopia: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and so on. But the closest thing we have to a contemporary Utopian novel is what we could call the retropia: books like Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (about a funky throwback Oakland record store) or Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (about 1970s Brooklyn) that fondly recall a bygone era, by way of illustrating what we’ve lost since —  “the lost glories of a vanished world,” as Chabon puts it. Lethem’s more recent Dissident Gardens is also concerned with utopia, but mostly in so far as it gently needles the revolutionaries of yesteryear.

The reasons for a complete lack of serious Utopias are self-evident: How would you even pull one off? The very notion of a straight-faced Utopia seems inherently naïve, and jarringly at odds with a current cultural mood that mixes meta-ennui with ironic remove. As a writer, how do you begin to imagine a perfect world? And how would you seriously champion it, without being laughed at, culturally excommunicated, or written off as some sort of wannabe cult leader? Intriguingly, the sharp-eyed novelist/futurist Cory Doctorow is working on a novel titled, simply, Utopia, even as we speak — though further investigation (basically, a nosy email to Doctorow) reveals that the work in progress is a something closer to a dystopian vision of “a post-scarcity society.”

Still, it’s not true to say that everyone’s abandoned Utopia — it’s just that the job of envisioning a perfect future has shifted from novelists, poets, and filmmakers to a parade of endlessly optimistic gilded-age tech evangelists. Each new tech pitch, from the iPod to Uber, is essentially a kind of micro-Utopian narrative, a tale of wonder that starts with “Imagine if ….” It’s just that what comes after those ellipses is invariably somewhat of a letdown. (“Imagine if … you could order takeout from your phone while standing on the subway platform.”) Even so, each product launch is a familiar story of societal disruption, innovation, and renewal, all made possible thanks to the newest phone and/or tablet and/or app and/or car service. And the press coverage of these gadgets is as breathlessly Utopian as anything Orwell, or Bellamy, might have concocted. (A typical recent article heralds a new smartphone as “something out of a sci-fi fantasy” because the phone in question has “virtually no bezel surrounding the screen.” In your face, 1939 World’s Fair!) In fact, there exists no more essential example of pure, uncut Utopian magical thinking than a typical 30-second Jony Ive spiel on an ad for a new iPad. (“When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical…”)

In an understandable reaction to all this techno-Utopianism, novelists and other artists have cast themselves in an adversarial role, canaries in the coal mine, teasing the technological narratives out to their potentially dystopian, and disastrous, conclusions. Perhaps no one has nailed the creepy ubiquity of smartphones better than Shteyngart does with his personal apparat in Super Sad True Love Story. This is all necessary work, often instructive, and even, on occasion, quite fun.

But rather than sit outside the fenced boundaries of Utopia and angrily lob grenades over the gates, why not storm the fortress and reclaim the territory? Sure, you may not buy in to Steve Jobs’s version of Utopia (or Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s), but why not provide a fictional alternative? It costs nothing but the time it takes to imagine it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love dystopias, and will continue to devour them, in all their dark, gnawing, worrisome, baby-eating glory — but increasingly my hunch is that the next Great American Novel, or earth-rattling film, will be a Utopian one. Wouldn’t you love to read a modern Utopian vision by Margaret Atwood? Or Zadie Smith? Or Cory Doctorow? Or some as-yet-undiscovered new voice? If we can all conjure so many worlds gone wrong, it shouldn’t be beyond our reach to imagine a single world gone right.

Is It Possible to Even Imagine Utopia Anymore?